HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — At press time, the seven-member study group assigned to evaluate the safety benefits of three-point belt systems on school buses was still working on recommendations that were to be presented to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and the state legislature in early March.
According to Joseph Morton, Alabama’s superintendent of education and the chair of the study group, the recommendations were 90 percent completed by mid-February but were not ready for public announcement, especially since Riley was out of the country at the time.
The study group was formed in the wake of the November 2006 school bus crash in Huntsville that killed four passengers and injured several others. The bus plunged off a highway overpass after being struck by another vehicle. It plummeted approximately 30 feet before landing nearly vertically on its front end.
To address the issue of improving school bus safety, Riley convened a committee to study the possible benefits of adding seat belts to Alabama’s bus fleet.
In addition to Morton, the study group includes Joe Lightsey, pupil transportation director for the Alabama Department of Education; Ann Roy Moore, superintendent of Huntsville City Schools; Mary Jane Caylor of the state Board of Education; Col. Chris Murphy, director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety; Joe McInnes, director of the Alabama Department of Transportation; and Richard Dorrough, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs.
The study group participated in two days of hearings in early February in the chambers of the Huntsville City Council. Experts from around the country as well as the local region and state were brought in to testify on school bus safety.
“I think the hearings went very well,” said Joe Lightsey, state pupil transportation director in Alabama. “There were a lot of people who provided some really good information on both sides of the issue.”
The study group heard a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from the experience of a trauma surgeon to a biomedical engineer to a school bus driver. In addition, testimony was heard from federal officials, association representatives, bus and safety equipment manufacturers and transportation supervisors.
Robin Leeds, who represented the National School Transportation Association, was one of the early presenters. She, like many of the other speakers, testified to the exceptional safety record of school buses. “Yellow school buses transport 25 million students every school day, providing more than 9 billion student rides every year, with an occupant fatality rate of less than 10 and an injury rate of less than 0.2 percent,” she said.
In her testimony, Leeds gave a “qualifed yes” to the question of whether lap/shoulder belts would add to the safety of schoolchildren on buses. She qualified her answer by saying that the systems must be three-point lap/shoulder systems, not lap belts, and must be properly worn. She added that the decision to add lap/shoulder belts must not displace children who would otherwise ride the bus. “The safest place for students is in a school bus, whether or not it has restraints,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said he would like more direction from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the issue and has called upon the federal agency to re-evaluate FMVSS 222, “School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection,” to establish a system that would definitively enhance passenger crash protection on school buses (see "NAPT calls for review of safety standards").
The study group was asked by Riley to deliver its recommendations by March 2, four days before the start of the state’s 2007 legislative session.